When Arizona soccer hosts Oklahoma on Friday, it will rekindle some fond memories for redshirt junior forward Jill Aguilera.
The last time the Wildcats faced Oklahoma—2017 in Norman—Aguilera scored her first career goal to help UA upset the 16th-ranked Sooners.
Not only that, but it was also her very first game back from a torn ACL that caused her to miss her entire freshman season.
“I was really nervous,” Aguilera said. “I only played the last five minutes but before I went in, Tony (Amato) had told me about just making an impact in those five minutes. And I think that’s what I planned to do, and it worked out in my favor. But I’m really excited to be able to play them again.”
Aguilera is a different player these days. After notching two goals and two assists in her first season following her ACL injury, she tallied four goals and five assists in 2018, emerging as one of Arizona’s top forwards.
She was clutch, too.
The Redwood City, California native scored the game-winning goals in critical victories over Utah and UC Irvine (who Arizona also plays this weekend).
The Utah goal, scored late in double overtime, was particularly impressive. Aguilera netted a laser from distance with her surgically-repaired, but clearly still dangerous, left leg.
“She’s a super powerful, athletic, strong, fast, left-footed player and she’s just gotten better and better along the way,” Amato said. “I expect this to be her best season. We’ve seen glimpses of that so far.”
Amato, who was a prolific goalscorer in college himself, has worked closely with Aguilera over the last couple years, helping her improve her skill and composure in and around the box.
For her career, Aguilera has found the back of the net six times on 92 shots. If she can improve her conversion rate even just slightly, she could become one of the top playmakers in the Pac-12.
“She is left-footed and has good pace, it’s just a matter of receiving it, securing the ball, getting it on that left foot and creating scoring chances and crossing chances for her teammates,” Amato said. “She’s been focused on that, and it’s been looking good in training.”
Now in her fourth year in the program, Aguilera is more comfortable asserting herself among her teammates. For instance, when the Wildcats were cooling down after their match against Weber State last Friday, she made sure they were doing all their postgame stretching.
During the match, she aligned the Wildcats on a set piece.
“This year I really want to make sure that I have a voice and that my voice matters and everybody’s voice matters,” Aguilera said. “And that it’s not just about cooling off per se. It’s about being better for the next games that we have.
“A lot of the talking comes from Sam (Falasco) and Kelcey (Cavarra), and they play defense and midfield, and I think that it’s important to have somebody even higher up the line as a forward to be able to talk to the entire team. Because defensively I might be at midfield waiting for the ball to come out to me, and I think that it’s important to be able to talk to my defense and midfield to help them out.”
Next year, as a rare redshirt senior, Aguilera figures to have an even greater leadership role. Her teammates admire her perseverance.
“She was faced with a ton of adversity because of her injury, but she’s definitely overcome that,” Cavarra said. “As a player, she is so mentally tough and always willing to put in 100 percent of the work.”
Looking back, Aguilera says scoring against Oklahoma made her realize that her ACL injury wasn’t going to derail her career, that it was just a minor obstacle in her quest to be the player that she aspires to be.
And if you told her when she was rehabbing that one day she would be where she is now, she would be “pretty happy.”
“I think I just wanted to do well in the first two seasons and make an impact,” Aguilera said. “And I think for these last two years, I really want to make my mark and help my team get as far in the NCAA Tournament as possible. And we’ve been quite successful ever since my first year coming back, but I think we can go even farther this year.”